Women who gave up everything to follow Mother Teresa and devote their lives to her Missionaries of Charity share shocking insights into the closed Catholic congregation in a new podcast.
From the ‘military training’ which ‘breaks you down into nothing’ by cutting you off from all friends and family to the daily rituals of self-flogging, wearing spiked chains which point inwards and washing yourself with nothing but a tin can full of water, ex-sisters reveal what life was like behind convent walls in The Turning: The Sisters Who Left.
‘One doesn’t always know where to draw the line between religion and cult,’ says Mary Johnson, who spent 20 years in Missionaries of Charity [MC] before leaving through official channels in 1997.
Mary, who has written a memoir about her experience upon which the podcast is based, claims the closed society, which contains secret ceremonies and rituals – including cutting all the hair off new recruits and burning it – carried the ‘characteristics of those groups that we easily recognise as cults’ in ‘so many ways’.
Mary Johnson spent 20 years in Missionaries of Charity [MC] before leaving through official channels in 1997
Mary, who has written a memoir about her experience upon which the podcast is based, said the closed society, which contains secret ceremonies and countless rituals, carried the ‘characteristics of those groups that we easily recognise as cults’ in ‘so many ways’ (pictured with Mother Teresa)
‘But because it comes out of the Catholic Church and is so strongly identified with the Catholic Church, which on the whole is a religion and not a cult, people tend immediately to assume that “cult” doesn’t apply here,’ she told the New York Times.
All MCs take strict vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. Friendships with each other were forbidden, according to Mary, as were luxuries such as taking a shower.
Sisters were even forbidden from receiving phone calls from family members except in an emergency and only allowed to visit home once every 10 years.
‘I think Mother Teresa took everything to its most radical conclusion,’ Mary says in the podcast. ‘All the contact with my family had been cut off. Oh, I used to get homesick a lot.’
Mary – who grew up in Michigan and Texas, the oldest of seven children in a Catholic family – explains how she signed up in summer of 1977 aged 19 after reading about Mother Teresa in Time magazine.
Sisters were even forbidden from receiving phone calls from family members except in an emergency and only allowed to visit home once every 10 years
Mary told how Mother Teresa was ‘very concerned about maintaining the vow of chastity’ to the point of paranoia, and ‘ passed that on to everybody else’
She joined America’s main MC house in New York’s The Bronx as an aspirant and worked her way up to becoming a postulant, then a novice – at which point she took a new name, Sister Donata – and eventually became an Assistant Superior.
WHO WAS MOTHER TERESA?
Mother Teresa was born to ethnic Albanian parents on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia, and named Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu.
Deeply religious, she became a nun at the age of 16, joining the Loreto abbey in Ireland. Two years later she was given the name Sister Teresa. In early 1929 she moved to Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, where she became a teacher and, 15 years on, headmistress at a convent school.
In 1946 she received ‘a call within a call’ to found the Missionaries of Charity, officially established as a religious congregation in 1950. Nuns of the order began calling her Mother Teresa. The Indian government granted her citizenship in 1951.
The following year Mother Teresa opened her first home for the dying, and in 1957 her first mobile leprosy clinic. She worked for three decades in India before leaving for the first time in 1960, going to the United States to address the National Council of Catholic Women.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI granted the Decree of Praise to Mother Teresa’s religious order, bringing it directly under Vatican jurisdiction. That same year the first Missionaries of Charity house outside India was founded, in Venezuela. Others later opened in Italy, Tanzania, Australia and the United States.
In 1979 Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for the world’s destitute. ‘I am unworthy,’ she said.
Despite declining health, including arthritis, failing eyesight and heart problems, she continued to work. Pope John Paul granted her request to open a shelter for vagrants inside the walls of the Vatican. In 1988 she opened her first communities in the former Soviet Union. In March 1997 Sister Nirmala, a former Hindu who converted to Roman Catholicism, succeeded Mother Teresa as leader of the Missionaries of Charity.
On September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa died of a heart attack at her order’s headquarters in Kolkata. An array of world dignitaries attended her funeral.
In October Archbishop Henry D’Souza successfully petitioned the Vatican to waive the usual delay of five years after death before initiating the beatification process.
In late 2002, the Vatican ruled that an Indian woman’s stomach tumour had been miraculously cured after prayers to Mother Teresa. Pope John Paul wanted to declare her a saint immediately, bypassing the beatification process, but was dissuaded by cardinals.
In December 2015, Pope Francis opened the way for her canonisation by approving a decree recognising a second miracle attributed to her intercession with God – the healing of a Brazilian who recovered from a severe brain infection in 2008.
Mary tells how Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 aged 87 and was known in her lifetime as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, was ‘very concerned about maintaining the vow of chastity’ to the point of paranoia, and ‘passed that on to everybody else’ – which resulted in a ban on touching each other, and limited physical contact with the people they cared for.
‘She would say, “Sometimes of course it’s necessary; you have to touch the babies, you have to feed the babies. But as soon as that baby is fed, you put that baby down”,’ Mary recalls.
‘You could not have a friend. This was very specifically prohibited. They called it “particular friendship”. If somebody saw you getting kind of closer to one sister than to another, you would be called out on it.’
The rules of the vows were so strict that even showering was seen as an unnecessary luxury. Mary says she learned this early on, when she took a quick cold shower – ensuring not to break poverty by turning on the hot one. Little did she know she was expected to wash by pouring water over herself with a tin can.
She was caught by a sister who ‘got very upset’: ‘She ended up calling me all sorts of names, that I was vain and lazy and immodest, and I could not figure this out. What on earth had I done that was wrong? The water coming from the shower head was cold water. I hadn’t broken poverty by turning on the hot one. I hadn’t taken very long; I was really pretty quick about it. I couldn’t understand.’
When she became a novice, Mary reveals how Mother Teresa, who was made a saint in 2016, led a ritual which saw all of her hair cut off to the point where it was practically shaved, then thrown in a fire as the sisters sang a chant.
Mother Teresa explained to her that cutting their hair was a sign of a sacred commitment to God.
‘I remember one… had tears in her eyes as her hair was falling, and others were just kind of sitting there with their eyes shut as tight as they could. That was kind of… kind of frightening to see it all happen all at once like that. It became very real,’ Mary recalls.
Afterwards she explains how she noticed a ‘horrible acrid, awful, awful smell’ emanating from the room where the novices’ hair had been cut.
‘I saw there our novice mistress was tossing our ponytails into that fire. Just tossing our hair into the fire,’ she says.
Another ritual Mary spoke of was that of ‘the discipline’ – a sheath of knotted cords the nuns were expected to beat themselves with every evening as a form of penance.
‘This was a daily practice every day except Sunday. Or big feasts days,’ she explains.
‘It started off with very few strokes. If I remember right, it was about 15. Eventually when I became a finally professed sister, it would be 50 strokes… every night.
‘Certainly beating yourself every day is a reminder that you’re a sinner, taking away any sort of pride. You are someone who needs to beat yourself.
‘I think that in some circumstances also, there could be a kind of a … sadomasochistic, erotic-pleasure thing going on.
‘I think a lot of things do get twisted or can potentially get twisted around when all the… all sexual energy, desire has to be repressed or sublimated. Um. And I… I wouldn’t be surprised if if that element was there, in some way or another.’
Mary did consider leaving earlier than she did, but it was difficult to ‘escape’. Nuns always went out ‘two by two’ and were never allowed to just to walk out.
When she became a novice, Mary told how Mother Teresa led a ritual which saw all of her hair cut off to the point where it was practically shaved, then thrown in a fire as the sisters sang a chant
‘I wouldn’t have been able to go, you know, more than five or six paces before somebody ran up to me and said, “Where are you going?”,’ she says.
Ex-nun Colette Livermore, who started with the MCs in Australia in 1973 and has also written a memoir about her experience, said it was ‘very hard’ on her family, to the point where it was ‘like she was dead’.
‘You’re isolated from everyone else. That’s what I mean by brainwashing,’ she says.
She recalls an incident in the podcast where her superior had held back letters ‘as a sacrifice’ which meant she missed one from her mother telling her one of her brothers was in hospital and it was touch and go whether he’d pull through.
When her mother called the convent in tears, Colette was allowed to take the call, but her request to go home and visit was denied.
Colette Livermore, who started with the MCs in Australia in 1973 and has also written a memoir about her experience, said it was ‘very hard’ on her family, to the point where it was ‘like she was dead’
Colette (pictured as a nun) recalled an incident where her superior had held back letters ‘as a sacrifice’ which meant she missed one from her mother telling her one of her brothers was in hospital and it was touch and go whether he’d pull through
‘I wanted to go home, but you see, I had no money and my hair was completely shaved, not that that would have stopped me, but… I didn’t have any regular clothes, I had just a sari and everything,’ she recalls.
‘It’s just strange how completely cut off you are from your family and your usual way of life. I just needed to have a bit more of a spine, I think, and say, “Well, I’m going,” but for some reason I didn’t, and I I regret that now. I I can’t understand why I didn’t, you know. Can’t understand myself. But I must have been controlled from the inside a bit.’
The Turning: The Sisters Who Left is available to listen to now
‘The idea behind the Missionary of Charity training is just like military training to break you down into nothing,’ says Kelli Dunham, who joined the MC and began her training in the same convent as Mary in 1994.
‘In those first months, it seemed like the whole idea was to make you feel as alone as possible, with the idea that you would depend only on God.’
Kelli likens the training to a ‘boot camp’ where you did what you were told, regardless of whether it made sense to you. While she enjoyed being part of the ’cause’, she struggled with the extreme ‘life of poverty’ they were expected to lead.
It was born out of Mother Teresa’s mantra that, ‘if you would really want to know the poor, we must know what is poverty, and that’s why in our society, poverty is our freedom and our strength’.
Kelli tells how they weren’t even allowed to open the windows at night despite the sweltering conditions in summertime, and they didn’t wear deodorant under their three or four layers of clothing.
‘I remember saying to the sisters, like, “We don’t smell very good.” And she’s like, “Oh, such a blessing to help with chastity, no?”,’ Kelli recalls.
Mary did consider leaving earlier than she did, but it was difficult to ‘escape’. Nuns always went out ‘two by two’ and were never allowed to just to walk out. After leaving the MC, much to Mother Teresa’s ‘disbelief’, Mary admits she found herself questioning previous assumptions, including her beliefs about God
Mary, now a humanist celebrant, speaker and established writer, says she still has a great deal of affection for the women who are within MC, and those who have left, but it makes her ‘really sad’ to see how fair they’ve strayed from Mother Teresa’s initial impulse and how ‘twisted’ it’s become over the years.
After leaving the MC, much to Mother Teresa’s ‘disbelief’, Mary admits she found herself questioning previous assumptions, including her beliefs about God.
She writes on her website: ‘I fell in love. I fell apart. Between panic attacks and bouts of depression, I published my work in periodicals and on National Public Radio. Finally, after a long spiritual struggle, I found I had outgrown my religious faith. I let go.’
The Turning: The Sisters Who Left is available to listen to now.